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Iraq jumps into U.S.-Iran tussle

Times Staff Writer

In echoing the Pentagon’s latest accusations of Iranian meddling, the Iraqi government has placed itself firmly where it has long said it does not want to be: caught in the middle between Washington and its neighbor to the east.

Baghdad says it agrees with the United States that Iran has continued to supply weapons to anti-government militants in southern Iraq, including arms with markings indicating they were produced this year. On the other hand, the Iraqi government seems eager to send a message to the Bush administration to back off threats of military action and allow Baghdad to pursue diplomatic solutions more quietly with Tehran.

“We are worried about any escalation between the United States and Iran for a simple reason: We are the weakest party in this game,” said Sadiq Rikabi, an advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. “Our policy for our neighbors is to go to them, face to face, speak with them in a planned, frank and direct way about any problem.”

In recent days, Iraq’s government has followed the United States in stepping up claims that new Iranian-made weapons have been found in the southern city of Basra. The allegations appear to come at a convenient time for both the Shiite-led Iraqi government and its ally, the United States.

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With Baghdad still suffering the violent aftereffects of Maliki’s offensive against Shiite militias last month, Iranian interference would help explain why Iraqi and U.S. forces have been unable to bring the fighting to a standstill. In the latest clashes, four U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in two separate rocket and mortar attacks in Baghdad.

At the same time, Iranian involvement allows U.S. officials to deflect blame for the fighting from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whom they are counting on to sustain a frayed but officially intact truce he called in August for his Mahdi Army militia. Though privately many soldiers here say the Mahdi militia is involved in the current fighting, publicly, the allegation is that “special groups” who have broken away from Sadr and receive training and aid from Iran are causing the troubles.

Iran, meanwhile, dismissed the latest accusations as “ridiculously false” in a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Monday. “It is not the first time that the international community is witness to the United States’ baseless allegations,” it said, referring to Bush administration claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The United States for more than a year has accused Iran of meddling in Iraq. A U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue, said the newest evidence included munitions with 2008 manufacture dates found in Basra during recent fighting between Iraqi and U.S. forces and Shiite militiamen. They bore the hallmarks of Iranian workmanship, including fuses only found on Iranian-made arms, he said.

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But in a repeat of a scenario seen here for more than a year, neither the United States nor Iraq has unveiled the evidence, and nobody is saying when or if it will be made public. The U.S. military official said it was up to the Iraqis to decide when and how to present the evidence.

Iraqi advisor Rikabi indicated Monday that using the media as the conduit for airing differences with Iran was reminiscent of the propaganda methods of Hussein, and something the current leadership preferred to avoid.

“We avoid using propaganda against this country or that country,” he said. “We’re trying to give a new face to Iraq.”

As he spoke in his office in Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi government offices, sirens began wailing to warn of incoming rocket fire. Rikabi leaned forward slightly, away from his window, then relaxed after a crash sounded some distance away.

His comments followed the latest and most inflammatory salvo in months to come out of the Pentagon, which says rockets such as those launched into the Green Zone are coming from Shiite militias receiving training, weapons or other aid from Iran. On Friday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, cited an “increasingly lethal and malign influence” of the Iranian government.

Mullen did not give specifics, and it is unclear what prompted the harsh allegations.

A senior State Department official sought to dispel the impression that the Bush administration was seeking to intensify its warnings to Iran. U.S. expressions of concern “have been pretty consistent -- there are spikes on occasion when the Iranians are being provocative,” the official said.

A White House official said Basra was a “clarifying moment” for Iraqi government officials, who he said are “tired of the Iranians meddling in Iraq.”

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Iraq’s national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, and Ministry of Defense spokesman Mohammed Askari said caches found in Basra included Iranian-made arms with markings showing they were manufactured in 2008. Rubaie said the government was preparing to present the evidence to the Iranians soon, but he did not say when.

Despite the heated-up rhetoric, neither the United States nor Iraq has said it believes Iran has increased its smuggling of weapons, including rockets and roadside bombs blamed for most U.S. troop deaths. They appear instead to be accusing Iran of not keeping a promise it made late last year to Maliki to reduce activities here.

That raises the question of why the uptick in finger-pointing now.

Rubaie said there was “other evidence” in addition to the apparently new weapons, but he did not say what it was. He and other officials stressed that it was not just the weapons that bothered them, but the “extent” of Iranian involvement in other, unnamed aspects of the conflict.

The U.S. military official suggested that the “thousands” of munitions uncovered in Basra, and the idea that they were being used by extremists allegedly trained by Iran, had been an eye-opener for Iraq’s leaders. “Our discussion is now matched by their understanding,” he said. “This is the beginning of a change of public discussion among senior Iraqis.”

Skeptics point out that Iraq has little choice but to follow the lead of Washington, which has long pressured it to confront Shiite-led Iran on its alleged interference. But toeing the Pentagon line also serves to benefit Iraq’s Shiite-led government politically. It could placate Sunni Arab lawmakers, who have a deep distrust of Iran and whom Maliki is trying to lure back into the government following a months-long boycott. This would shore up Maliki’s support as he does political battle with supporters of Shiite cleric Sadr, whose militiamen are blamed for much of the recent fighting.

“I find it difficult to believe that Iranians would allow weapons to be traced back to them easily with manufacture dates on them,” said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite politics at Tufts University. He said nothing in the allegations was new. What is new, he said, is the United States’ need to justify its expansion of its operations to southern Iraq in support of Maliki’s offensive.

The Iranian angle provides that justification, especially in the eyes of most Americans, Nasr said. “The threshold for demonization of Iran is fairly low. The public would readily believe the worst about Iran,” he said.

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Even those who do not reject the allegations against Iran say they show the need for a change in U.S. policy toward it, from one of confrontation to diplomatic outreach.

“You have a belligerent and isolated Iran extending its influence,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said Sunday on CNN. “We’ve had no meaningful dialogue with Iran for 30 years . . . and I have a very hard time understanding why this administration does not try to do so.”

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.


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